Does this sound a little like a certain board game?

The following anecdote comes from the 1908 book History of San Diego 1542-1908: Volume II, by William E. Smythe.

It’s part of an interview conducted in late 1905 with Alonzo Horton, the man known as the father of the city of San Diego. Horton was then in his late 90s. He was recalling when he and others arrived in San Diego in the late 1860s and began buying up and developing property. This particular account seems to describe a live version of a Monopoly game:

“There was a man named John Allyn, who built the Allyn Block on Fifth Street. He came down here to see San Diego and I hired him to paper this old building that I had sold to Dunnells [that’s S. S. Dunnells, who built the first hotel in what was then called Horton’s Addition]. He was four days doing the work and I gave him for it the lot on the southeast corner of Fifth and D Streets, 50×100. He took it, but said he didn’t know whether he would ever get enough for it to make it worth while to record the deed. It was only a year or two later that he sold it for $2,000 to the people who now own it, and it is now [circa 1905] worth over $100,000.”

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“…a thorough woman of business…”

That was one of the phrases used in a biographical sketch of Mary J. Birdsall which appeared in a book published in 1888 entitled: The City and County of San Diego Illustrated And Containing Biographical Sketches of Prominent Men and Pioneers.

Here is a drawing of Mrs. Birdsall from the book:

Birdsall

The book’s title is a mouthful in itself, which was the style of a lot of volumes in that era, especially those written to salute a certain region and those considered its most notable citizens.

The book nevertheless offers an interesting snapshot of San Diego in 1888, and of this one particular person’s life. That’s especially true from the perspective of the reader in 2016. Note the reference in the title to “Biographical Sketches of Prominent Men and Pioneers.” There are actually 47 bios presented in the book, but Birdsall is the only woman listed.

Born in Missouri but raised in Tennessee, Birdsall is described as having been “educated at the Young Ladies Model School in Summerville, Tennessee” from which “she graduated at the age of fifteen, and within a year was married.” She and her husband came to California during the 1860s, first to northern California and then to San Diego in 1870, a time when “what is now the city of San Diego contained but a few board houses.”

While she started a restaurant called the Home “in company with her husband,” within a few sentences Mary is clearly starting a larger business independently. “In 1881,” states the book, “she began the erection of the fine house at present occupied and managed by her, the Commercial Hotel on the corner of Seventh and I Streets.”

A check of historic San Diego newspapers bore out the change in her life, with coverage in 1882 of her suing her husband for divorce on the grounds of “habitual intemperance.” That coverage soon gave way to descriptions of her as the proprietor of a well-run hotel and an active businessperson and civic leader.

“Being cast upon her own resources,” the bio concluded, “Mrs. Birdsall cultivated her natural business ability, and by strict attention to her duties she has acquired a most enviable position in the community. While directing her hotel in an admirable manner she has, by the exercise of judicious investments, acquired a handsome competency. Besides the Commercial Hotel she owns considerable city real estate and county property.”

Here’s to one strong woman whose story made it into print.

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